In February 1805 in the South Pacific, a New England sea captain named Amasa Delano spotted a battered cargo ship wallowing badly. Leaving his own ship to investigate, Delano boarded the strange vessel, the aptly named Tryal. He found a terse Spanish captain, Benito Cerreno, with a skeleton crew of demoralized sailors and a surprisingly impertinent cargo of African slaves. Later in the day, Cerreno suddenly jumped overboard to seek haven on Delano’s ship, the Perseverance. The beleaguered Spaniard revealed that for six weeks he had been held hostage on his ship by rebel slaves, who had killed their former owner and most of the crew. Led by Babo and his son Mori, the rebels had demanded that Cerreno and the remaining sailors pilot their vessel back to West Africa. Instead, he had deceived them by sailing around the Pacific in hopes of encountering another ship that might rescue him and restore the rebels to slavery.
Although vaguely antislavery, Delano was avidly pro-profit. He expected to reap a windfall by capturing the Tryal and the slaves for resale as legal prizes. Delano’s crew stormed aboard the Tryal and, after four hours of bloody, hand-to-hand combat with cutlasses and pikes, killed seven rebels and subdued and tortured the other 65. The dead included Babo, and among the captured was Mori, who was hanged with eight others in a Chilean town as a convicted murderer. The rest were auctioned to new owners. After a year of litigation and political appeals, Delano got a paltry financial settlement that barely paid the expenses of his wait.
A dozen years later, he hoped at last to profit from his triumph over the rebels by featuring it in his memoirs. In 1855, that narrative inspired Herman Melville to write a novella, “Benito Cereno,” which cast the captain as the victim of a moral darkness embodied by Babo. In “The Empire of Necessity,” Greg Grandin retells the story and recurrently draws upon Melville for a set of “interludes” to highlight the moral stakes of the suppressed revolt.
Delano took pride in having fought for liberty in the American Revolution, and the Chileans were preparing to seek their independence from Spain. But both the captain and the Chilean judges felt no contradiction in killing blacks who had fought for freedom after suffering a tyranny far greater than what Britain and Spain had imposed on their colonists. Grandin reminds readers “that the Age of Liberty was also the Age of Slavery.” Rather than shrinking, the slavery of Africans was rapidly expanding, particularly in Spanish America and the American South.
Grandin probes the paradox of revolutionary liberty and racial slavery during an alleged Age of Enlightenment. The partisans of that age celebrated the rational individual liberated from the constraints of history and social bonds. But such a socially isolated man had to discipline himself to transcend the passions that ordinarily possessed unthinking humanity. The champions of individualism identified their polar opposites in people of darker skins, who allegedly had more passion and less reason. Grandin insists that the illusive ideal of the free individual “was honed against its fantasized opposite: a slave bonded as much to his appetites as he was to his master.”
Stretching far beyond his core story, Grandin leads readers around the globe and throughout a generation to reveal the contradictions unleashed by the age of revolution. The American Revolution taught Delano to adopt a self-celebrating but self-disciplined pursuit of personal profit. But his moral code proved worse than useless as he suffered “a long catalog of botches, fiascos, and debacles.” In his one financially successful voyage, he slaughtered thousands of seals and elephant seals on Argentine and Chilean islands to take their skins and blubber to the Chinese market. That fleeting success quickly attracted dozens of entrepreneurial competitors who butchered the animals to extinction at their rookeries. When Delano returned to the islands in 1804, he found his hunting ground exhausted. Without seals to process into commodities, he faced bankruptcy if he came back empty-handed to the creditors who had financed his voyage. Grimly sailing about with a largely empty hull, he stumbled upon the Tryal, whose capture he hoped would avert his ruin. Frustrated in that desperate hope, he lost his ship and home and landed in a debtor’s prison.
Delano’s ruin derived from his illusions about the power of an individual to control his fate. In the last, miserable years of his life, Delano lost faith, writing, “Please God, if there is a god, save my soul, if I have a soul.” By trying to live free from bonds to others, Delano became entangled in capitalism, the greatest and most deceptive of social webs. The more Americans boasted of their freedom, the more they served a volatile market with contempt for losers. To fend off their creditors, the deluded would traffic in the slavery of others.
Grandin tells a great and moving story, but bloats and dilutes it with long digressions that discuss, for example, the Spanish reconquista of Iberia from the Muslim Moors, 19th-century medical thought and practice, the shifting nature of Protestant and Muslim theology, the ox-hide trade in Argentina, and Darwin’s take on the tortoises of the Galapagos. Fortunately, the narrative revives whenever Grandin loops back to the lives of the core characters: Delano, Cerreno, Babo and Mori. Their plights illuminate the leviathan that Grandin pursues: “It is not the paradox that defines America but rather the ceaseless bids to escape the paradox, to slip out of the shackles of history, even as such efforts inevitably deepen old entanglements.” Delano had trapped himself by pursuing an illusion of isolated freedom at the expense of seals and slaves.
THE EMPIRE OF NECESSITY
Slavery, Freedom, and Deception
in the New World
By Greg Grandin
Metropolitan. 360 pp. $30